Quick trivia question: How long has it been since an SEC team won back-to-back conference championships?

Answer: Going on 16 years. (Sorry, I don’t think WordPress has one of those upside-down text features you see on cereal boxes.) That’s in spite of the fact that only seven current SEC members have more than two conference titles.

Historically, it’s tough to repeat an SEC title, whether it be conference-wide or within a division. For one, the SEC claims more first-round picks and sends more early entries to the NFL Draft than any conference, and if a team makes the SEC Championship, there usually are either a) plenty of early defectors or b) an above-average group of seniors.

Missouri fit into the latter category and must defend its SEC East title while replacing a ridiculous amount of production from the 2013 season.

Depth and development were staples for that 12-2 team, and the Tigers will rely on development to mature that depth this year in hopes of another magical run. But which player will the team miss the most? There’s enough material to divide this into offense and defense. We’ll look at the defense today.


DE Michael Sam: We’ll start with the biggest name in the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Sure, there were two other players from the Missouri defense drafted before him in April May, but Sam’s list of 2013 accolades is long and distinguished. He made 19 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, nearly dwarfing the numbers of the team’s other starting end, who was drafted five rounds earlier. Plus, Sam was the second Missouri player ever to earn unanimous All-America status.

DE Kony Ealy: Ealy made a paltry 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. But he also played at a listed 275 pounds, was better in run support and swatted down six passes in his best J.J. Watt impersonation.

LB Andrew Wilson: Forget the team-high 113 tackles, which represented a sizable gap from second-place Braylon Webb’s 89 despite missing the equivalent of a game due to a targeting suspension. Wilson won the team’s Hammer Award for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year, and with good reason. On a unit with three NFL Draft picks, Wilson was the hammer. The run defense held up much better than expected for most of the season, in large part because Wilson blew up opposing fullbacks and lead blockers before cracking the ball-carrier.

CB E.J. Gaines: In addition to his team-leading five interceptions, Gaines finished second on the team with 75 tackles. That’s an impressive number for a cornerback who missed two games due to injury. Oh, and his absence included the 27-24 loss to South Carolina. A gimpy Connor Shaw came off the bench in that game to shred the Tigers secondary as the Gamecocks finished with 423 receiving yards. Granted, the game went to double overtime and running back Mike Davis accounted for 99 of those yards, but Bruce Ellington torched the Mizzou corners for 10 catches, 136 yards and two touchdowns.


  • The defensive ends were the heart of this defense. But much like Alabama’s running backs in 2014, Missouri’s defensive ends were so good and plentiful that they offset each other somewhat. Sam and Ealy both are gone, and it’s hard to point to one of them as clearly more vital than the other. Sam/Ealy was a bigger loss than Sam or Ealy.
  • Markus Golden and Shane Ray also played well off the bench and should help maintain a beastly status quo at the position in 2014.
  • The Tigers must replace another senior cornerback in Randy Ponder, accentuating Gaines’ loss (no pun intended). But the continued strength of the pass rush and the development of the young cornerbacks also mitigates the loss of Gaines in the secondary.
  • Golden and Ray are fairly proven as pass rushers, but as a group, the defensive ends probably will take a half-step back in terms of run defense, which accentuates the loss of Wilson.


Andrew Wilson. There are only two Missouri linebackers with legitimate experience in 2014, and one of them is Darvin Ruise. He’s been locked in a virtual doghouse (Tiger cage?) all offseason. Wilson’s physicality helped give the defense an SEC feel, as cliched as that sounds. And no offense to Michael Scherer at middle linebacker or Kentrell Brothers as the elder statesman, but Wilson entered last season with 23 starts and consecutive seasons leading the team in tackles.

If there’s a theme here, it’s that the run defense and the secondary both are valid concerns for the coaching staff at this point in fall camp. Of those two areas, Wilson’s presence would make the biggest impact of any single player.


Markus Golden. Missouri produces an endless stream of pass-rush talent, perhaps as consistently as it churns out NFL-worthy quarterbacks. Ray is the freak athlete, but Golden is the one generating all the preseason accolades. That’s because he produced more on a per-play basis than a second-round pick and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. If he approximates that production as a starter, he’ll be headed for Sundays soon enough.

For what it’s worth, Ray should be productive as well and Athlon Sports called cornerback Aarion Penton one of its breakout players in the SEC for 2014.


It’s assumed the Tigers won’t miss a beat at defensive end with such strong production from last year’s backups and two talented freshmen inheriting that role in 2014. The linebackers and cornerbacks, in general, are more athletic, but less polished and perhaps not quite as physical against the run. Overall, the team’s depth on defense seems at best a question mark relative to last year and at worst it has regressed.